October, the month of Halloween, comes at the time of year when there is a noticeable shift in seasons – a time when the light of summer gives way to the darkness of winter. Days that promised to go on forever suddenly shorten and, seemingly overnight, there is a chill in the air, a foreboding of the cold wet season to come. As if trying to help ease the transition, ancient cultures created rituals in recognition of this shift.
In the fifth century B.C, in Ireland, summer officially ended on the last day of October. On that day, after the crops were harvested and stored for the long winter, the Druid priests would meet on a hilltop in a dark oak forest. They would light new fires; crops and animals would be sacrificed. As they danced around the fire, the season of the sun passed on and the season of darkness began. It was said that on that day, the spirits of all those who had died throughout the preceding year would come back to haunt those still alive. In anticipation, the living, not wanting to encounter a spirit, would dress in ghoulish costumes and run raucously through their neighborhoods hoping to scare the spirits away. All laws of space and time were suspended. The veil between worlds was never thinner, it was said, than at that time of year.
In ancient Mexico, the native people celebrated October 31st as the time when the gates of heaven opened and the spirits of deceased children were allowed to reunite with their families. Two days later they were joined by spirits of the adults and for twenty-four hours they all celebrated. At the break of the next day, they returned to the land of the spirits. For over three thousand years this ritual was practiced by the indigenous people and though the Spaniards tried to eradicate it, they were unsuccessful. Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. Today the ritual is known as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead and coincides with the Christian All Saints.
These ancient traditions, as they have come down to us in our modern-day Halloween and Day of the Dead, are reminders of the cyclical nature of life. What is light becomes dark then becomes light again. What is alive dies and is reborn. Nothing is permanent. Everything changes. The only constant is change.
As we enter the month of October and Halloween, it is a good time to remember the transitory nature of life. Think back over you own life. Notice the cycles that have threaded through – times of sadness that seemed as if they would never end, such as the ending of a relationship or the death of someone you loved. Remember the way that sadness gave way to acceptance, later hope, later peace. Or think of a time of illness or injury that seemed unending – perhaps a bad flu or a broken bone. How gradually you healed, your body strengthened and your energy returned. Even those living with a chronic condition have cycles where things get worse and then get better, for despite what we do life continues to change. Absolutely nothing stays the same.
In that regard it is helpful to look at natural cycles – the cycles of day and night, the cycles of the seasons. In darkest winter, life seems to disappear. In truth, though we can’t see it, it is only hibernating – gathering strength for the new growth in spring. This new growth gradually unfolds into the abundance of summer. Which, in turn, begins to wither in the fall. Our physical and emotional lives echo the same cycles, and it is important when we are feeling down to remember winter and how with no outside help winter inevitably turns to spring. Just as it is important not to cling to periods of happiness and peace in hopes that summer’s abundance will last forever. The more we open to and allow for life’s natural cycles, the more easily we can move through our days without becoming rigid or stuck.
On this first day of October take a moment to experience your natural cycles – the endings as well as the beginnings – the miniscule deaths and rebirths in all you do. Pay specific attention to the processes of your body – for example, your breath. Take a moment to breath in. Feel your lungs, chest, abdomen expand. Then notice as the breath begins to wane. Try to be aware of the split second of that change and feel your abdomen, chest, then lungs contract as it turns into the out-breath. Now think of this cycle in seasonal terms – the spring and summer of the in-breath, the fall and winter of the out-breath. Spend a minute or two moving through the seasonal cycles of your breath.
Next notice the blinking of your eyes – opening, beginning to close, closing, beginning to open – all in a fraction of a second. Are you able to feel the moment this opening can no longer sustain itself and begins to close? Or the fraction of a second the close begins to open? Pay attention. See how closely you can follow the changes.
Lastly turn your attention to your heart. You may want to feel the pulse in your wrist or neck, feel the faint beat of it pumping out, the stillness as it contracts. Again, see if you can notice the moment of transition – one dying into stillness, one reemerging to a beat. Experience the seasonal cycles in both your eyes and your heart.
During this month, as you move through the day, take time to become aware of your mood. Watch when you begin to feel stuck, imagining your sadness will never go away. Think of winter. Remind yourself how winter changes into spring. Or when you feel yourself clinging – wanting to hang on to a good mood despite the fact that its energy is fading – remember the sun. Even the sun sets and rises again. Allow your moods to come and go, experiencing your own natural cycles. Experience past lives, future lives, as each past moment turns into a future one. No need to wonder whether reincarnation is real – for daily you live it out. Daily you have countless tiny deaths, countless rebirths – your cells, your breath, your blood, your emotions, your thoughts, your intuitions ever-changing, ever dying and being reborn.
On this first day of October, begin to practice opening to this ever-changing phenomenon. Notice the cycles of your body, accept the cycles of your moods. Celebrate the month of Halloween – the death in birth, the birth in death. Celebrate the cyclic nature of life.
Last night the moon was three quarters full. There was a soft mist in the valley, and as the moon rose the mist turned milky white, spreading like a silver veil over the ground. A small pine on the ridge behind my cabin stood out gray and feathery against the backdrop of silver. Here and there the darkened shape of a rock loomed out of the glow. The mist grew brighter until it enveloped my cabin in a halo of light. Glowing so bright, that for a time I had no need to turn on the lamp. It was like being inside a rainbow. Each particle lit from within and surrounded by light. For a moment I felt suspended between ordinary waking consciousness and some much greater reality. And I was reminded, “the veil between worlds is never thinner than at this time of year.”
Now morning, small winged creatures fill the air. They are littering the deck outside my cabin. Tiny moths or butterflies come down from the sky with the falling leaves, like an Aztec afterlife where the spirits of the dead return as butterflies.
Later on my walk, halfway up the road, I smell a terrible odor. Looking down toward the creek in the direction it is coming from, I try to see what it is. On a small outcropping on the opposite bank, a steer has fallen. His body is already bloated, his legs stretched out stiff to the side. Not far beyond him, no more than a few feet away, a newborn calf nurses from its mother.
Here in the country, life and death are much closer. They exist side by side. The seeds that drop from the trees in the fall, sprout in the spring. The calf newly born, nurses at the side of a decaying steer. The cycle goes on, ever-changing. Nothing is permanent – with each of us it’s the same. We are always transforming. Seeds sprouting up. Butterflies, falling from the sky.
SIDDHARTHA by Herman Hesse. I include this book because the figure of Siddhartha ultimately encompasses the transitory nature of life. Two symbolic elements thread their way through the book – that of the river and that of a smile. The river is an age-old symbol both of what is fluid, at the same time enduring. The smile suggests a state beyond the two – a peaceful and harmonious state of being. “He saw many faces, a long series, a continuous stream of faces – hundreds, thousands, which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time, which all continually changed and renewed themselves and which were yet all Siddhartha . . . Each one was mortal, a passionate, painful example of all that is transitory. Yet none of them died, they only changed, were always reborn, continually with a new face.”
THE SEVENTH SEAL by Ingmar Bergman. This is the screenplay from the film. I include it because it is a narrative manifestation of the cycles of death and rebirth. The struggle between death and life are represented in the figures of The Knight, questing for truth, and Jof, a humble peasant innocently pursuing simple joys. The film moves from images of the aftermath of the Crusades and the plague that is sweeping Europe – to the Knight and Death playing chess – to an ending where, after a terrible storm has swept through and the angel of death passed over, Jof and his family are left to the dawn of a new day. “They crawl out of their hiding place. They look across ridges, forests, the wide plains and the see, which glistens in the sunlight breaking through the clouds. Jof points to the dark, retreating sky where summer lightening glitters like silver needles over the horizon. ‘I see them Mia, I see them! Over against the dark stormy sky. The smith and Lisa and the Knight and Raval. And Death, the severe master, invites them to dance. He tells them to hold each other’s hands. They dance away from the dawn toward the dark lands, while the rain washes their faces and cleans the salt of the tears from their cheeks.’ He is silent. A lone bird tests its voice after the story. From the Sea comes a strong and fragrant wind.”
THE SACRED PLACE; The Ancient Origin of Holy and Mystical Sites, by Paul Devereux. While not specifically related to the subject matter of this newsletter, Devereux’s text and photographs capture the human impulse to create monuments that endure in an ever-changing world. The examples presented in this book range from prehistoric and Celtic Western Europe, Aboriginal Australia, Scandinavia, and pre-Columbian America. The photographs show that the nature of sacred place arose from the land itself and its seasonal cycles. They were both permanent and ever-changing depending on the weather and time of year. “A megalith in a rural setting, in fields or woods, always has a distinctive atmosphere and character about it. The same tomb changes and alters its character according to the weather conditions, the qualities of light, the seasons of the year. It is never the same place twice.”
MAKING FRIENDS WITH DEATH; A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality, by Judith Lief. Lief offers practical exercises for deepening awareness of change to help us discover ways of living more openheartedly and with less fear. “We are on a journey that begins with our birth and ends with our death,” Lief writes. “At each moment of that journey, we confront the boundary of life and death. We are constantly in transition . . . . Much as we try to keep them apart, death and life cannot be separated; they are completely interwoven . . . Each moment of experience is a transition, bounded by its own birth and death . . . Transitions make us uncomfortable, but at the same time, they open us to new possibilities.”
THE LIFE CYCLE COMPLETED by Eric Erikson and Joan Erikson. Erikson’s work on the psychosocial stages of human development are well know. This volume contain’s Erikson’s personal explanation of these stages, plus three short chapters by Joan Erikson that elude to an additional ninth stage. The author’s perspective grows out, not only of Erikson’s seminal work on human development, but of their age – (91 and 93), thus offering a perspective that few others will share.
TRANSITIONS; Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges. I recommended this book in an earlier newsletter, but I include it here because the second half of the book deals with the process of transition and is relevant to what I’ve written above. In the second half, Bridges begins by referring to the work of a Dutch anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep, who interpreted the rituals of transition of many ancient cultures and who first coined the phrase, “rites of passage.” Bridges condenses Gennep’s findings into what he sees as the three natural phases of transition, which he calls – Endings, The Neutral Zone, and New Beginnings. “These three component processes of personal change will be explored in detail so that you can understand why your own experience of transition takes the shape it does and how you can deal more constructively with it. For as the ancients knew, transition is the way to personal development.”
THE CELTIC DRUID’S YEAR; Seasonal Cycles of the Ancient Celts by John King. King devotes part of his book to general background information on the Celts and the Druids. The rest of the book is about cycles of the Celtic year, its holidays and rituals. He suggests that the New Year celebrations were held at mid-summer contrary to popular belief because of availability of food at that time of year. He describes what foods would be available, the concerns regarding weather condition, as manifestations of their god’s favor/disfavor. These descriptions helps present the practical rather than purely spiritual or magical functions of the celebrations – thus tying them to seasonal cycles. The book is interesting though at times difficult.
THE UNIFIED CYCLE THEORY, by Stephen J. Puetz. Puetz’s work ranges over a diverse range of cycles, from fluctuations in the stock market, economic activity, wars, civilizations, global climate, ice-ages, geological formations, and abundance of life on earth. The book covers cycles ranging from 27 days to ones spanning billions of years. Aside from identifying cycles, the book attempts to explain why they occur. Puetz posits four classifications of cycles – gravitational cycles, magnetic cyhcles, solar cycles and, what he calls, mysterious cycles, which, he says have affected earth and the universe throughout time. While the book is the most comprehensive and authoritative book ever written about cycles, it is heavy reading and I only recommend it to people who want a more scientific understanding of the cyclical nature of life.
My retreats – Finding Stillness, Cultivating Creativity and Developing Balance – are six hour retreats and take place in a charming cottage outside the town of Occidental on ten acres of rolling meadow, oak, bay and redwood trees, only minutes from the ocean. The retreats are designed for individuals and can be scheduled throughout the year at your convenience. There is also the option to stay at a nearby inn, dividing the retreat over two days so that you can take advantage of nearby Russian River and the area’s spectacular hiking trails. Consider giving one as a birthday present to a friend, or taking one yourself.